The Royal Sandrock Inn – a Short History of the Undercliff

Once upon a time there was an pub in Niton Undercliff on the Isle of Wight that became something of a legend. Perched above the road, with views down to the sea, locals would flock to live music nights in the bar at ‘the Sandrock’ and there was an air of faded colonialism about it. But then one day in the 1980s it burnt down…

The Royal Sandrock Hotel was built in around 1790 as the private residence of a “gentleman of taste and fortune, who greatly admired the wild scenery of the Undercliff,” according to writer W. B Cooke, in his book Bonchurch, Shanklin and the Undercliff that was published in 1849.

 “It was afterwards purchased to be converted into an hotel- hence, it has more the appearance of a decorated villa, rather than a house of public resort," Cooke continued. "The grounds are kept in beautiful order, and are enriched with flowerbeds, and with choice creepers clinging to the rocks. The veranda in front of the house is supported by ten rustic pillars, entwined by twisted branches of ivy over-running the top, affording to the visitors a delightful shelter from the rays of the mid-day sun."

It was extended after the discovery of a nearby chalybeate (impregnated with iron) spring in 1808 by the aptly named Newport surgeon, Thomas Waterworth. One of its early visitors was the young Princess Victoria, as a girl of 15, who stayed there with her mother, the Duchess of Kent in order that they might drink the waters from the Sandrock spring not far away in 1833.

The site of the chalybeate spring was about half a mile to the west of the Sandrock, towards Blackgang.  Sandrock Spring Cottage was built as a dispensary for visitors, located above the springhead, where a grotto was built to enhance and protect the source and the spring water was commercially exploited as a cure for many ailments.

Barber's Picturesque Illustrations of the Isle of Wight, 1846, tells potential visitors that: "[the water] possesses the properties of a tonic of the most powerful kind and has been found singularly efficacious in the cure of many very important and dangerous diseases.." including "tremblings, with all the varieties of nervous and hypochondriacal disorders."

The hotel was originally known as ‘Rock Cottage’ and its name evolved over its life as an hotel from the Sand Rock Spring Hotel, the Sandrock Hotel (the name by which it was known to Queen Victoria), the Royal Sandrock Hotel after her visits and finally the Royal Sandrock Inn. Another building to the south of the hotel has since become known as Rock Cottage - it was a tap house to the hotel and later a telephone exchange and is now rented out as self-catering holiday accommodation.

The Sandrock became a coaching inn on the road from Ventnor to Freshwater, used as a stopping place for the regular daily passenger coaches and provided stabling for horses.  People would also drop in for refreshment if they were visiting the spring up the road and the hotel was a ‘post house’ where horses were kept for post riders or for hire to travellers.

Beautiful villas began to spring up along the undercliff road from Ventnor towards Blackgang. Lisle Combe was built in 1815 by Lord Yarborough, founder member of the Royal Yacht Squadron in Cowes who wanted his brother Captain Pelham to have a country retreat at his disposal and now offers B&B. Mirables had been built in the 17th century but it was extended in the early and later 1800s in a mainly fashionable gothic style. During the period 1820 to 1832 Thomas Haddon enlarged the Old Park in the Gothic style, including adding beautiful arched windows. In 1882 it was purchased by a German industrial chemist, William Spindler, who had ideas of building a new town and he provided piped spring water to the area and built a promenade at Binnel Bay. But he unfortunately died in 1889 before he could fulfil his plans.

The Old Park is now a child-friendly hotel. In the late 1820's John Hambrough of Middlesex bought the Steephill Estate and began the construction of Steephill Castle, the remains of which are in Undercliff Gardens and the converted coach house is at the western end of Ventnor Park. Hambrough's mason rented a plot in the new Belgrave Road and built Cove Cottage (1828) beginning a building boom in the Ventnor district.

In 1829 a Dr. Lempriere talked of the "striking advantage of the Undercliff climate," and in 1830 interest in the area increased. By 1851 the population of the town had risen to nearly 3000 and its popularity was increasing with wealthy Victorians moving westwards to St Lawrence if they were requiring land for a larger residence. Unfortunately for some of these early settlers the ground underfoot was not as sturdy as their convictions, especially those who chose to build to the west of the Sandrock Hotel.

The Royal Sandrock Hotel fell into a period of decline during the mid-nineteenth century but had recovered by April 1891 when the census shows Rudyard Kipling as resident. He was by then already a celebrated author and visited with his American friend and fellow author and collaborator, Wolcott Balestier. In 1902 Marconi stayed at the hotel while conducting his celebrated radio experiments at Knowles Farm, at the cottage now called Marconi Cottage.

In 1928 there was a massive landslide from the cliff above Windy Corner, about half a mile westwards along the Blackgang Road from the Sandrock and the road was destroyed. The main road was diverted up Barrack Shute and through Niton village, no longer passing the hotel.

Sand Rock Spring Cottage had ceased dispensing its spring water although the spring continued to flow, no doubt contributing the destruction of the building, which finally disappeared in a landslip in 1979. The location of the site of the spring has been lost with subsequent land movements to the west of the vast landslip area to the west of Windy Corner, along with the villas that once dotted this area beneath the cliff. Parts of their walls can be found on a walk through the landslip to the beach.

The Sandrock fell into decline after World War Two but continued to “perpetuate the local custom of carousing and intemperance well into the 1960s and 1970s, when it happily purveyed the often catalytic Burt's bitter in conditions of decayed colonial elegance and became a popular and boisterous venue for live rock music,” according to Martin Bowen on the Rock Cottage website.

The Sandrock was badly damaged by a fire on 1st October, 1984, and it was demolished with much sadness and speculation from the local community, who lost their favourite place of entertainment and it has since been replaced by three houses in a small close. But there is a popular pub just around the corner, The Buddle Inn, which has an equally interesting history and well-attended live music nights with a fair bit of carousing - those locals are certainly still indulging in their favourite pastimes! 

Jo Macaulay

3 April 2016

By Jo Macaulay in Articles

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